BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 by Scott Peterson and Kelley Jones
BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 is not the perfect debut. With its single-minded plot and its lack of characterization for the main character, it definitely has its issues. However, this story also has a great feeling of nostalgia that stretches back to the glory days of Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil. Also, the characterization of the Joker and the overall thematics are some of the best in the medium.
88 %
A Nostalgic Read
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Many today credit Frank Miller for modernizing and darkening Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. However, almost ten years earlier, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had already started that process. O’Neil and Adams created a tone and atmosphere for the Dark Knight that most today consider intrinsic to the character. That’s why BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 is so exciting for me. In both visual aesthetic and plotting, this issue aims toward the glory days of O’Neil and Adams. Yet does this debut actually hit its mark?

It is a typical day for the Dark Knight at the beginning of BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1. The Joker has captured a group of hostages and threatens to kill each of them to lure Batman out of the shadows. Of course, Batman makes short work of the Joker and saves the innocents. Upon returning to Arkham, however, Batman discovers that it was all a cunning ruse. Suddenly, the gates fly open and the villains run loose through the asylum. Now, Batman has to wrangle his greatest villains before they cause too much trouble. Yet, when the smoke clears, he realizes that one of his foes isn’t there. The Scarecrow has escaped Arkham.

Brawling Bat

BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 page 1. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 almost perfectly captures the O’Neil and Adams era of BATMAN comics. The way writer Scott Peterson approaches this story feels like it was ripped straight from the burgeoning days of the Bronze Age. That isn’t to say this is a particularly deep plot. In fact, Peterson could go a bit further with the mystery and detective elements of the Batman mythos.

This book largely focuses on the testosterone-infused Bat of O’Neil’s stories. This is the Bat that takes the fight to his criminals in quick and brutal fashion. In many ways, it feels like an absolute pleasure. This is an easy and fun read. However, until the end of the story, Peterson somewhat forgets some of the essential elements of Batman’s character.

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With that said, I found the subtle theming rather interesting. Peterson lays a lot of groundwork for the themes of his series early on through dialogue. He has characters actively question Batman’s decisions in ways that feel poignant and interesting. The dialogue between Batman and the unnamed therapist in this issue particularly points a finger at Batman’s methods.

After all, should Batman be blamed for the evils committed by his rogues’ gallery when they often act out to get the Bat’s attention? And what of Batman’s punch first mentality? The Joker even has a powerful moment where he psychoanalyzes his long-time foe. Peterson truly flexes his writing muscles in these scenes, focusing intently on the themes of his story while also giving us some of the best dialogue in the medium.

Hidden Psyche

BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 pages 2 & 3. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

One of the biggest faux pas in BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 comes from the characterization of Batman himself. This is somewhat similar to my previous point of contention. Peterson’s approach focuses solely on the Bat’s combat proficiency. As such, we get an almost forced silence from the character. He barely speaks at all in this issue. It does add to the dark and brooding atmosphere of the character, to be sure.

Nevertheless, I felt a bit shortchanged. I feel like Peterson put so much of his effort into writing Joker and the side characters that he somewhat forgot about the hero. The end of this first issue seems to suggest some future exploration of Batman’s mind. However, I feel more invested in reading this story in order to see what Peterson does with future villains.

With that said, I absolutely loved his characterization of the Joker. There really isn’t a whole lot to this version. However, he feels like a Denny O’Neil character. Peterson’s Joker isn’t just a maniacal lunatic with no regard for human life. He is a devilishly intelligent monster with a horrifying obsession with Batman. The dialogue that I mentioned earlier works because it is believable. This Joker truly believes that Batman is just like him. In fact, he believes that Batman is actually more broken mentally than himself.

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The conversation between these two adds a level of depth that it couldn’t reach through plot alone. You get the sense that Joker has thought about this stuff for a long, long time. More importantly, you also understand that he will do anything to prove it. Peterson writes one of the scariest Jokers in a long time.

Flash to the Past

BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 page 4. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Artist Kelley Jones is rather famous in his own right. For good reason, having drawn for both BATMAN and THE SANDMAN in his time. Jones’ style mimics the best elements of Neal Adams, giving a highly stylized cast of characters that look strong and powerful. In many ways, this strength defines Jones’ artistry.

His Batman looks like he can smash down walls and fight off Darkseid. Most modern artists give Batman a more athletic, gymnastic build. Jones goes for the simple body-builder Bat that I first read in comics. More importantly, Jones is a master of atmosphere. His pages are absolutely doused in black ink and shadow, making this story as grim and brutal as its protagonist.

BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1: Final Thoughts

BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 is a fun, nostalgic read that focuses in on the best parts of O’Neil and Adams’ run from the 1970s. Scott Peterson and Kelley Jones capture the darkest elements of the character, and in equal measure question the heroes sanity.

While the plot doesn’t delve too deeply into the detective elements of Batman’s legacy, the brawling, powerful character never looked better. The terrifying characterization of the Joker also adds a lot to this story. It isn’t perfect, but BATMAN: KINGS OF FEAR #1 has enough nostalgia and atmosphere to make it worth your time.

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